When I moved house, one of the key things I wanted to do was wall mount my 34" ASUS ultrawide monitor as the stand was taking up a colossal amount of space on my desk. Coupled with that was an idea to wrap a Philips Hue Lightstrip around the back to create some form of ambient lighting. I've now gotten around to doing both and I'm really pleased with the results.
I used to have a Lightpack PC on the back of my iMac and my original hope was to transplant this to the back of my gaming monitor when I purchased it last year. Unfortunately it broke during movement and I was never really that pleased with it anyway; whilst it could show different colours around the entirety of the monitor (i.e. red one end, blue the other) and work these out from what was on display, the brightness was pretty low as was the number of colours it could actually display. The Lightstrip doesn't let you change colours along its length nor can it work as a true ambient light based on HDMI passthrough but it displays a much better range of colours, is much brighter, and can be controlled via the excellent Hue apps and open API. Due to this, my initial thought was that I would use it as a basic ambient light and then maybe have some presets for certain games like Rocket League i.e. have a Flic button on my desk so I could switch between an orange or a blue depending on which team I was on in a given match.
After playing a few matches like that, I started getting into the realms of fantasy wondering if I could build an app to either pluck the score from regular screenshots or sniff through the memory of the game in order to automatically switch between orange and blue depending on which team was winning. My friend and Rocket League partner John had heard of somebody linking their current boost level to the brightness of their backlit keyboard and so it definitely seemed possible.
Eventually, though, I found ScreenBloom, a free app for both PC and Mac that approximates a Philips Ambilight TV by taking an average colour sample of the screen (with optional saturation boost) and then changing the backlight to that single colour. Whilst there is a little latency due to the capture and wireless communication, it is perfectly usable even in a fast-paced game. The release notes for the app say that it can only be used for gaming when in fullscreen borderless windowed modes but I've found it works just fine in true fullscreen at least on my G-Sync enabled setup.
Depending on your setup, ScreenBloom will take up ~16MB of RAM and anywhere from 3-15% of your CPU. I haven't noticed any ill effects from using it in the background whilst gaming and even without being able to change the colour of the strip at different points the ambient effect is very compelling. I dropped the animation time from 0.7 seconds to 0.3 seconds and that made it feel a bit snappier without having it flash when changing between colour extremes.
One of the nicest features is the ability to use multiple Hue products and divide your screen into different zones. For example, you could have a Hue Bloom on each side of your monitor and divide them into the left and right of the contents of the screen for a better ambient effect. I have two spotlights in my study pointing at the desk so I'm very tempted to replace the current white Hue bulbs with colour ones to make use of that feature.
If you've ever wanted an ambient backlight but have been put off by the high prices of bespoke solutions like the LightPack or Ambiscreen (or their lack of support for anything other than HDMI) then I can definitely recommend the Hue Lightstrip even without the ScreenBloom app. Coupling it with ScreenBloom definitely leads to a better look though, especially if you have multiple Hue products for a full room effect.
I'm an app developer by profession and have just written a blog post about how Connecting To Host co-host John Wordsworth and myself built a way for us to listen to the same music at the exact same time via two different streaming services whilst playing Rocket League:
Before Apple Music launched in April 2015 I was a longtime Spotify user and subscriber. I maintained a playlist I affectionately called Ben Dodson’s Definitive Hits Collection which contained nearly 45 hours of songs I thought were particularly good. On most Tuesday nights, my friend and podcast co-host John Wordsworth and I play a few rounds of Rocket League and we will regularly have the Definitive Hits on whilst we play. There are two issues with this:
As I use Apple Music now, I don’t pay for a Spotify premium account and so I have to put up with adverts (which are utterly terrible).
They aren’t in sync so we might be humming (or badly singing) along to a song that the other person isn’t listening to.
Now I could just recreate the playlist in Apple Music to solve the Spotify ads issue but we still wouldn’t be in sync. As we’re both developers, we decided to remedy this problem with a fairly convoluted solution…
With Christmas and the New year out of the way, I wanted to take a quick look back at some of my favourite games from 2016 and some of the games I'm looking forward to in 2017.
Best of 2016
I jumped back to the PC in May 2016 after a 7 year flirtation with consoles. Since then, I've spent roughly 620 hours on the PC and 80 hours on the Xbox One. This top 5 is a list of my favourite games played during that time, not necessarily my most played games or even games published in 2016.
I originally had no interest in DOOM as I assumed it would fall into the camp of "games that will shit me right up". I received a free copy with my ASUS motherboard which I gave away but then received another one with my ASUS monitor so decided to give it a shot (mainly to test the Vulkan performance). It quickly won me over with the fact that it is a throwback to '90s DOOM with modern graphics rather than trying to be a jump-scare horror game in the mold of DOOM 3. It took me just under 13 hours to complete and then I spent a few evenings experimenting with the multiplayer which was utterly generic and terrible. Whilst I don't think I'd replay DOOM again anytime soon, there were plenty of collectibles and secrets to be found that I would like to find (especially the secret rooms that are in the same style as the original DOOM).
#4. The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt
I first experienced The Witcher 3 via a drunken purchase on the Xbox One. I played for around 10 hours but it never really grabbed me in the way that I had hoped it would. When I got my gaming PC, it was one of the first purchases on my list as I was eager to see the graphical difference between the two. What followed was 64 hours of gaming that passed by in a week or two. Whilst I initially spent a lot of time on side quests, I ended up just rushing through the main quest as I wanted to finish and get to the Blood and Wine expansion which was highly rated. The end game took a lot longer than I expected; I was pretty certain I was an hour away when I got a message saying "no turning back from this point" but there was another five to go! Once I was finished, I decided to give it a pause and play some other things before tackling the Blood and Wine expansion which, thanks to the Winter Steam Sale, I'll be moving onto early this year. Overall, The Witcher 3 was a wonderful game full of variety both in scenery and characters; a favourite moment for me was three drunk Witchers playing "I have never". Unforgettable.
#3. Rocket League
Rocket League has the enviable position of being my most played game this year with a total time spent of 164 hours. I'd heard about it from my friend John who played it on the PS4 and received a free copy as part of the Humble Monthly Bundle. What followed were 40 hours of struggling to hit the ball, 40 more hours of "I can get better than this", and then 80 hours of "I should be playing other things but this is a lot of fun". Rocket League quickly ended up being our game of choice when playing multiplayer and has been the main cause of our Connecting to Host podcast going on hiatus (although we've done some new recordings which will be live soon). In essence, Rocket League is football with cars but the amount of skill exhibited by some players makes it a fascinating game. There are some nights when you'll have a fantastically skillful run of goals and epic saves, and others where you'll just be crushed. Whilst they need to sort out a few balancing issues, Rocket League is definitely a game I can recommend to anyone with a lot of time to spare (as long as they can get through the first 20 hours or so of being utterly terrible at it). Top tip: turn off text chat so you don't have to put up with the insane amount of trolling.
#2. Forza Horizon 3
I never really got into the Forza Horizon games despite owning Forza Motorsport 4 and 5 and finding them lacking in sense of gameplay due to the limited tracks and focus on realism. When the demo for Forza Horizon 3 appeared on the Xbox One, I gave it a try (mainly to see the HDR in action on my Xbox One S) and instantly connected with it due to it being a very unserious racing game with a decent set of racing mechanics under the hood. When I found out it was part of the "Play Anywhere" scheme (which lets you buy a game on Xbox and play it on PC complete with cloud saves) it was an instant, yet not entirely sober, purchase. I quickly racked up 50 hours of gameplay and enjoyed a few co-op sessions as well. I also picked up the season pass in order to try out the gorgeous Blizzard Mountain expansion which lets you don some snow tyres and skid around a massive mountain. If you enjoy a casual racing game, I can highly recommend this as an enjoyable open world game with lots of collectibles and fun driving challenges. One of my most memorable moments was purchasing a ridiculous engine to get a Reliant Robin to jump 300ft in order to unlock an achievement...
#1. Planet Coaster
I have long been a fan of the original two Rollercoaster Tycoon games and their expansion packs. I never really got on with Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 being in that odd period of 3D where things just didn't look as good as they did in 2D. Planet Coaster, then, is how I always imagined a 3D Rollercoaster Tycoon game but with a ton of enhancements. In effect, the gameplay is much the same; take a struggling park and fix it up to reach some arbitrary goal like guest happiness or monthly turnover. The secret sauce is in the way in which Planet Coaster is customisable. Unlike the Rollercoaster Tycoon games, Planet Coaster does not operate on a grid; you can place buildings, paths, and track at any angle or incline. Add to that the ability to create custom buildings (made up of tiny parts that can be placed at any angle, rotation, or incline) and then share them on Steam Workshop and you have a game within a game that overshadows the main mechanic. It turns out that designing and modelling is actually way more fun than the running of a theme park and Planet Coaster definitely puts most of its eggs in that basket. The developers have already released a free expansion which added more campaign levels and a Christmas theme complete with loads of new pieces to add to buildings and I'm excited to see what they add next. My top thing to look at to show the attention to detail is the entertainer staff; the robot has a bright light shining out of the bottom of the costume so it looks like he is levitating but zoom in and you'll see two human feet. Wonderful!
I have a few games which deserve a special mention for 2016:
I was intrigued by this idea of a game where the central mechanic is typing. You type to kill enemies, smash objects, and solve puzzles. Add some clever use of elements that require you to shift gears as you type and you have a really enjoyable 5 hour game.
The darling of the casual gamer group that haven't realised that Firewatch didn't invent the "walking simulator", Firewatch is a damn good example of how a story and some nice graphics can be more important than user activity. It begins with a story that'll punch you right in the gut before showing you the beautiful forest you'll spend the rest of the game in. There are a few weird things going on and you'll uncover it all via an NPC you communicate with purely by radio. It's a great story but it is the voice acting that really sells it. My favourite moment: "Cripple Gulch got me".
LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Say what you like about Episode VII (and plenty have) but I really enjoyed it. I also enjoyed this LEGO interpretation which managed to inject a bit of life into what had become a slightly tired formula (to the extent that I didn't even finish LEGO The Hobbit). LEGO Star Wars manages to add a few new interesting mechanics as well as unpacking some of the stories around Episode VII that weren't directly in the film (such as what happens between Episode VI and VII and how C-3PO got that red arm). A must have for both the LEGO and Star Wars fan.
Most anticipated for 2017
I have 5 games that I'm particularly looking forward to in 2017:
I expected this to be higher up my list but the truth is that I was a little deflated by the Toybox that came out towards the end of 2016. Whilst the gameplay is fine, the graphics just seem a little off to me like a student project in Unity and there were a few issues with my Xbox One Elite controller. The trailer is promising so I'm hoping the final result will turn out much better as I'm totally ready for a '90s-style 3D platformer.
#4. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
A new Zelda game would usually be top of the list but 2017 has some strong competition in it and I've already had this in my 2016 and 2015 most anticipated. I likely won't be getting this on launch as the latest rumour is that the Nintendo Switch version will come later than the Wii U version but I am excited for this. All of the sneak previews and trailers look great so it will really be a case of seeing if the graphics are going to be up to the high expectations that are being set; I really don't want to play this at 720p!
#3. South Park: The Fractured But Whole
South Park: The Stick of Truth would definitely be up in my top games of all time due to the seamless way in which it made the leap from TV show to game. There was a sense of joy in being able to create your own South Park version of you and then see it moving around in cutscenes as it if it was an episode of the show. Whilst the game was a little light on variety, it sounds like they've made some improvements for The Fractured But Whole which eschews the Lord of the Rings style fantasy genre for the Marvel style superhero genre. I've always enjoyed the Coon and Friends episodes and the trailer looks like this will be no exception: "There's nothing wrong with doing the exact same movie to start a franchise".
#2. Sonic Mania
A nice surprise from Sonic Team for the 25th anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic Mania is a collaboration with a number of developers (including Christian Whitehead who did the adaptations of the Mega Drive games to iOS) to build a totally new 16-bit 2D Sonic game. It looks amazing.
#1. Red Dead Redemption 2
I don't think there is a single "most anticipated games of 2017" list that doesn't have the follow-up to the Rockstar Games western on it (and if there is they are wrong). Red Dead Redemption is, in my opinion, the greatest game that Rockstar Games have produced and they have a lot of great games. If you're a fan of the Wild West era like I am, then this is the must have game of 2017. The trailer is short on detail but high on graphical beauty and scene setting. I really hope they release it on PC close to the console release... or at all.